Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Questing in Shorts, January 2022: Saturation Part 2

 I said I'd be back for a second part of my short-fiction-of-2021-marathon wrap-up, and I'm here to make good on that promise! Let's talk about some more of my favourite short stories read in January, covering a whole bunch of magazine issues from last year. (Part 1 is here, if you missed it!)

Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness ed. dave ring

In just a couple of short years, Neon Hemlock have become one of my favourite publishers with their range of queer speculative fiction from diverse, boundary-pushing perspectives, and this collection is an excellent place to start if you haven't picked up one of their books before. Both the theme and the aesthetic are excellent: each story comes illustrated with a full page image from Matthew Spencer, and the stories involve a range of witchy and occult premises covering everything from space station cults and oxygen maintenance (Effects of Altitude on the Blood Elevations of Love by Marianne Kirby) to sapphic triads exacting supernatural revenge on their landlord (Love and Light by H.A. Clark). There's also two comics, some poetry and two narrative adventure games: Exterior, by Mercedes Acosta, about leaving the safety of your home into the unknowable dangers of the outside; and Hold the Dark, by Allie Bustion, about you and your coven preparing for a mysterious oncoming darkness. There's even some classifieds by Jordan Shiveley, of Dread Singles fame! It adds up to a really cool package where every piece of work contributes to an engaging whole.

 But let's talk about some of my favourite short stories! Kel Coleman (and, look, I could go off on another whole tangent about how many great stories Kel Coleman put out in 2021, but you should just go check them out and not take my word for it) knocks it out of the park with "Before, After, and the Space Between", a story about an innately talented witch and her daughter, growing up as outsiders in a society where magic has been co-opted by a dominant culture that requires artefacts imbued with spirits of the dead to conduct it. Sanguine's mother narrates the growing rift with her daughter as she grows up, the circumstances of her death, and their eventual attempts at reconciliation from beyond the grave. The way the story navigates prejudice and cultural domination, wrapped up in a story between mother and daughter who have to overcome enormous barriers to come to an understanding, makes it heartbreaking and powerful and very much worth reading. I also really liked "Sutekh: A Breath of Spring" by Sharang Biswas, which creates a world based on a fictional game with strong parallels to Hades, where Osiris tries to fight his brother Set, constantly being resurrected in a pool of blood in Isis's cave when he fails. Except one day he wakes up and it's Amun-Au, not Isis, who greets him, and the two strike up a flirtatious rapport that becomes a high point of Osiris' frequent deaths, and blossoms into romance. As the scope widens to show us that this is a mod, one which becomes unstable with a subsequent game patch and stops the player from being able to progress in that version of the game, the story raises some really interesting questions about how fan engagement builds queer content into works that don't canonically care about them, blurring the line between that meta-commentary and the feelings of the characters themselves. If anything, the strong parallels to Hades and its real life studio Supergiant were drawbacks for me (Hades itself has two significant and inescapably canonical m/m romances, no modding required) but it doesn't take much to look beyond that mismatch to the general point that Biswas's story makes, and it's a good one.

There are also several great stories which build around specific places, be those the magical houses of "The Passing of Sinclair Manor, or, The House of Magical Negroes" by Danny Lore and "FOR CLOSURE" by Tania Chen, the supernatural contemporary city of "Dizzy in the Weeds" by L.D. Lewis and the future capitalist dystopia of "Undercity Spellwork", or the otherwordly juxtaposition of a trendy underground-carpark-turned-hotel (except don't call it a hotel, it's a Transitory Dwelling Experience) with the group of Black men dressed in intricate animal masks who come for a late night check-in, in "Antelope Brother" by Craig L. Gidney. That last story is narrated to perfection by bored hospitality worker Malik, who spends his mostly-dead shift reading and talking to his friend Kiki before investigating a supposed disturbance that turns into something more involved than he expected, and the slow ramping up of supernatural elements makes for a really funny, engaging story. Honestly, though, there's just not a bad story in here, and Unfettered Hexes covers a really impressive amount of ground while keeping its theme at the heart of every story. Well worth investing the time in.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Between all the issues I read last month, Beneath Ceaseless Skies has really cemented itself as one of my favourite publications, and I'd particularly urge anyone looking for slice-of-life fantasy to give their short fiction a try. Sure, there's plenty of adventure and weirdness, but some of BCS's best stories involve presenting a small corner of a much larger world, focusing on unlikely protagonists or niche professions, and building out mythologies and worlds around those folks. So you get stories like The Fox's Daughter by Richard Parks, about the challenges a spirit faces while trying to foster a high ranking Kitsune's daughter, or the fussy, nervous travelogue of "Letters from a travelling man" by W.J. Tattersdill, whose protagonist writes about visiting the home of his elderly friend and the changes it has undergone since she left. Even stories with more "traditional" fantasy elements: like the dragon slaying in "The Lingering Weight of Estrian Steel" by Rajan Khanna, or the fae power struggle in March McCowan's "Song So Pure and Cruel" or the build-up of rebellion in "The Last Days of Summer in the City of Olives" by Filip Hajdar Drnovsek Zorko, focus heavily on the protagonists' lives and hopes and fears outside of their call to adventure. The old soldier of Khanna's story has defected from the army after losing his fight with the dragon and finding love and new perspectives in the village below; the story of the fairy goddess of "Song So Pure and Cruel" is told through a childhood companion whose only interest is playing with her and hanging out, an interest that is reciprocated in the goddess' current incarnation; and Drnovsek Zorko's story features a reluctant princess who refuses to take up the position of challenging her sister directly, questioning the foundation of the rebellion that seeks to make her its figurehead even as she comes around to their objectives. Reluctant protagonists aren't new to fantasy, but at shorter length it becomes easier for that day to day life to take centre stage, and to emphasise the weight of human (or, you know, fae, whatever) connections and finding a purpose that doesn't involve violence or scheming, and the result is a reading experience that really enriches my overall fantasy diet.

With that in mind, it's not a surprise that the two standout stories from my recent readings are epics of an unusual type. "Quintessence", by Andrew Dykstal, is about a group of miners wintering at the top of an impossibly high mountain, kept alive by supplements and unable to venture outside due to the cold and lack . When Loren's compatriots start dying of what should be a preventable illness, and the mine's witch refuses to release the cure that would help them, he ends up murdering her and being possessed by her soul (the relationship that develops out of this is not as grim as it possibly should be, with that setup, but go with it). Between them, Loren and Rose begin to unravel the mystery behind their circumstances and the deaths, and hatch a desperate plan to escape their situation. There's a bucketload of tension and danger, and Rose is a fantastic character who gets plenty of time to shine despite not getting what she deserves within the story itself. And "A Manslaughter of Crows" by Chris Willrich is a story I want to press into everyone's hands, because it's about electoral fraud and gerrymandering in a fantasy city built on the principles of pirate democracy (otherwise known as the "swabocracy"), and the protagonist is a sentient cat who is part of a special investigations unit. Shadowdrop and his group of friends and allies (including a seagull called Purloiner-of-Chips, Hope the very good dog, and assorted humans) need to rush to unravel the plot threatening the city's election, and its connection to the newly formed bird party, before the tenets of their democracy are overthrown altogether. It's an adventure from start to finish, and I will never not be here for fantasy electoral politics.

Adventures Elsewhere

I caught up on several issues of Uncanny Magazine, which delivered its usual high quality mix from a lot of authors I know I love. "Colours of the Immortal Palette" by Caroline M. Yoachim is a really engaging story about a mixed race 19th century woman aspiring to be an artist but being held back both by her race and gender, and working mostly as a model for more famous artists around her (including Monet). When she gets an offer from an immortal painter to become immortal herself, she is given more time to break through, even as her benefactor insists that her artistic perspective is the wrong one to be worth paying attention to. Yoachim's protagonist prevails, of course, but her immortality and the difficulty of outlasting her peers makes this both a satisfying and bittersweet conclusion. "Where Oaken Hearts do Gather" by Sarah Pinsker is a story told through what are effectively genius.com annotations against a set of folk song lyrics, simultaneously telling the story within the song while also building out the characters and the simultaneous story of the commentators, one of whom stops commenting after a visit to the location where the song allegedly took place. It's haunting stuff, and the out-of-chronology comments are handled really impressively to build the tension even with the early reveal that something is amiss. I was also really impressed by the emotional resonance of "For All Those Who Sheltered Here" by Del Sandeen, which tells the story of a lynching from the perspective of the tree, and the tentative healing when it comes to be part of a family's life much later.

The Future Fire continues to impress too, and the pair of novelettes in Issue 56 were a real highlight of my reading (yes, they came out almost a year ago, no I'm not sorry for only just reading them, stories do not have an expiry date! "k.a. (birthright) by Lam Ning is the story of two former soldiers, part of a criminal warlord's army, who after several years years and a spell in prison find themselves in medical services on the other side of the conflict. The whole story takes place in a broadly sketched hostile environment - it's a planet, maybe earth, but suits and oxygen masks are required to go outside, not to mention the ongoing conflicts and rampant death-capitalism - and it's a really interesting story about struggling to survive amidst hostility, no matter how ugly your past or present might look. Then there's Listener, by Sim Kern, which is about a woman who grows up with the ability to talk to trees and plants, and how that ability and the events around it shape her relationships with her family and her best friend Delia. It's told from the perspective of the main character returning for a reunion years later, so we can see how she has built her life around an ability that she has increasingly rejected, and how returning to her home and reuniting with her family also lets her reconnect with what's actually great about talking to trees (aaaaah, sun!) and to put the pain of the past into a context that lets her move forward with self-acceptance of all she is.

Finally, I have to throw in a word for an unconventional Twitter story: Unknown Number, by Azure Husky, is a Twitter thread of text message screenshots portraying a conversation where Gaby, a 46-year-old trans woman, is randomly contacted by an unknown number who turns out to be much closer to her than she realises. It's a powerful story of the decisions around transition, and how the smallest things can make that decision either possible and validating, or difficult to the point of impossibility. I think it's worth reading for how kind the two characters are to each other, and particularly the affirmations that Gaby gives her caller  as we realise how unworthy of love and validation they feel about themselves. It's a delight, is what I'm saying, and you should read it. That's all.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy